Ending the Kindergarten user fee!

When I returned to the school committee, I came back with a few items of unfinished business. There were a few things I wanted to achieve that were not possible during my earlier two terms (2001-2007). The biggest unfinished item will be crossed off the list tomorrow night. We are about to eliminate kindergarten fees. We are about to refund the fees paid for the 2012-13 school year. The state is going to pay us to get rid of the kindergarten fees.

Why can we do this? To understand why this works, you need to understand how the state funds local school districts and the Chapter 70 formula.

The state’s Chapter 70 program is based on a few simple components:

  1. A foundation budget, based on the cost of educating the children educated in the district, is calculated. The foundation budget is based on what is known as the October 1 count, which is the student enrollment reported on October 1 of the previous school year. (For example, the funding for the 2012-13 school year is based on the enrollment on October 1, 2011.)
  2. The state determines how much a city or town can afford to contribute to the foundation budget, and requires the municipality to contribute that amount. This is the required local contribution.
  3. The difference between the foundation budget and the required local contribution is funded through the Chapter 70 local aid account.

For Fiscal 2013 (the 2012-13 school year) Arlington’s numbers are:

Foundation Budget: $45,702,617.25
Required Local Contribution: $ 37,180,313.00
Chapter 70 Aid: $8,522,304.25

The Required Local Contribution is a function of the previous year’s Required Local Contribution. It is determined by multiplying last year’s Required Local Contribution and increasing it by the Municipal Revenue Growth Factor (the amount of growth in local municipal revenues).

(Fiscal 2012 Required Local Contribution) $35,933,423
* (Increase by Arlington’s Municipal Revenue Growth Factor of 3.47%)  1.0347
= (Fiscal 2013 Required Local Contribution) $37,180,313.00

No matter what happens to the foundation budget, the Required Local Contribution remains the same. It is a function of the previous year’s Required Local Contribution and the Municipal Revenue Growth Factor, and nothing else. (This is the key to the equation.)

If something happens to increase the foundation budget, and the Required Local Contribution doesn’t increase, the state must fill the gap with Chapter 70 state aid.

What could happen that would cause an increase in the foundation budget?

Generally, the foundation budget goes up when enrollment goes up. If the number of English Language Learners goes up, the foundation budget goes up even more. If the number of free or reduced lunch students goes up, the foundation goes up even more.

For the current school year (FY13 – based on last year’s October 1 count), here’s how much a student contributes to the foundation budget.

Half-day kindergarten: $3,576.91
Full-day kindergarten: $7,153.90
Elementary: $7,197.06
Jr. High/Middle: $6,822.68
High School: $8,508.67
ELL Half-day kindergarten: $4,573.40
ELL Full-day Kindergarten, grades 1-12: $9,146.78

On October 1, 2011, Arlington had 344 half-day kindergarten students and 30 ELL half-day kindergarten students. Almost all of these students attended full-day kindergarten, but the second half of the school day was funded by a user fee that tops out at $3,000.

Here’s how these students contribute to our foundation budget:

(Not ELL) Half-day kindergarten: $3,576.91 * 344 = $1,230,455.94
ELL half-day kindergarten: $4,573 * 30 = $137,202.04
Total half-day kindergarten:  $1,367,657.98

We currently budget $970,000 in user fees to support these students.

What happens if we decide we aren’t going to charge a user fee for full-day kindergarten? Half-day kindergarten students who pay fees become free full-day kindergarten students who cannot legally pay fees. The district loses $970,000 in fees. However, it changes the foundation budget as follows:

(Not ELL) Full-day kindergarten: $7,153.90 * 344 = $2,460,968.71
ELL Full-day kindergarten: $9,146.78 * 30 = $274,403.46
Total full-day kindergarten: $2,735,372.16

Moving all our half-day kindergarten students into free full-day kindergarten seats increases the foundation budget by $1,367,685.77. The required local contribution (what Arlington pays) does not change. Because the required local contribution increases by the municipal revenue growth factor, and not the foundation enrollment, every dollar increase in the foundation budget that comes from converting to a free full-day kindergarten must be funded by the state through the Chapter 70 formula. Next year.

Bottom line. If we eliminate $970,000 in user fees this year (2012-13) we receive approximately $1.4 million in additional Chapter 70 aid next year, and that number will be incorporated into our Chapter 70 aid every year thereafter.

Tonight (September 12), the Finance Committee voted to endorse a plan to take $970,000 out of reserves and appropriate it to the school committee. The Finance Committee plans to adjust our fiscal stability plan to allocate an additional $970,000 to the schools in subsequent years (to cover the elimination of the user fees), and the remainder of the Chapter 70 increase will be returned to reserves. This will pay the town back for advancing the $970,000 in this year’s budget.

When I was on the school committee in 2001, we inherited a fee-based full-day kindergarten. The fee started at $1500, and we were able to reduce it to $500. We were poised to eliminate it in 2003, but that was the year that Mitt Romney became governor and reduced our Chapter 70 aid by 20%. That year, we were forced to make significant cuts and raise fees.

Eliminating the kindergarten fee is a dream deferred, but it’s a dream we will realize on September 13, 2012.

It’s a win-win all the way around, and the most joyous vote I will take as a school committee member.

Dancing on the third rail

The third rail of school board service is thought to be engaging in the the process of redistricting elementary school attendance zones.

During my previous service on the committee, we successfully kicked this can down the road without fear of touching the third rail. Some schools were oversubscribed, but we were still in the midst of a program to rebuild our schools. Whenever the rebuilding project is done, we would redistrict. I left the school committee in 2007 without facing the issue head-on.

Now I find myself at the tail end of a redistricting process that is coming before the school committee. An advisory committee has worked for the past year to come up with a plan that can be presented to the school committee for approval.

They have done good work. They started by moving the fixed lines, which met with objections from people who would have been moved into another sending zone. The committee went on to develop a far more conservative approach using buffer zones that fuzz the existing lines. They also grandfather current students, keeping children in their current schools, and keep siblings in the same school.

It is the job of the school committee to review and approve a new map. I am only one member, but I am bringing some key values and principles into my decision making process. Here’s what I am looking for, in no particular order.

  • We need to respect our history. People love their neighborhood and love their school. While a bold plan that starts from scratch may provide the best theoretical result, it disregards the personal connections of friends and neighbors. Thus, a plan that makes minimal changes for families of our students is preferable to an elegant system that reassigns a significant number of children.
  • We need to be grounded in fact. We cannot make difficult decisions based on speculation, or accept assertions as fact without supplemental evidence.
  • We must be fair. We are asking people to give up a guaranteed place at a school. We can’t take this lightly, and we should honor and respect this fact. As we move forward, we should strive to apply our decisions equitably and consistently.
  • We must be reasonable. The standards we apply to the process must make sense.
  • We have seven excellent elementary schools. Though they have somewhat different flavors, the town has deliberately created equity in programs and quality. There is no school that is demonstrably better than the others, there is no bad school, and our decisions merely move children from one good school to another.

When the fifth draft of the plan came before us, it was a good plan. However, there were portions that could be improved to conform to the principles I have for the new map. I thought it would be reasonable to make some adjustments to the proposed lines based on proximity to schools and walking patterns. I also thought that reasonableness and fairness permits moving homes into a buffer zone, but that people moved from one school to a buffer shouldn’t be removed from the buffers into a new school zone one year later.

Most of my thoughts were incorporated into the advisory committee’s Redistricting Map 6D.  The advisory committee expanded and improved on my view of reasonableness. They looked at homes across Summer Street from the Pierce Schol, and saw the wisdom of removing them from the Peirce-Stratton buffer zone.

As it stands today, the map meets the reasonableness standard. It respects our history. It could be tweaked, but it’s a solid plan that can move us to the next step. The next step doesn’t fix these lines in cement, any more than the existing lines are immovable. Next fall, we need to write the ground rules that govern student assignment in the buffer zones. When we implement the map, with our new rules, we will generate considerable data that we must use to evaluate the successes and challenges of the new policy.

That said, map 6D does not meet my fairness standard in one respect. After extensive conversations to people in Buffer H (currently in the Brackett district, to be placed in the Brackett-Bishop buffer), I think the plan for Buffer B (and two other buffers) doesn’t meet my fairness standard. We are asking the people of Buffer H to give up their place at the front of the line for a Brackett seat for the common good of the town. Some residents of Buffer B (at the bottom of the Spring Street hill, south of Menotomy Rocks Park) have requested to be moved into the Brackett district. I am happy to give them the opportunity to choose Brackett from within a buffer, but I don’t think it’s fair to put them ahead of the folks being moved from Brackett to a buffer when students are assigned to a school. Similarly, I think it is unfair for folks who moved into this buffer to lose their rights to attend Bishop School. Right now, I would like to see this problem resolved before approving the map.

I have been spending considerable time listening to folks who care about this issue, and seeking out the opinion of folks I respect, as I consider how to vote on redistricting. I write this four days before the scheduled vote on the redistricting proposal. My mind is open to new evidence, new arguments, and thoughtful challenges to my values and principles.

I can’t say enough good things about the folks who have engaged in the process. I have had many thoughtful conversations about redistricting, all have been respectful. Whether we have changed our viewpoint, or agreed to disagree, we have improved the final product as a result of our conversations. Maybe I have been dancing on the third rail, but hard work and lots of listening have reduced the voltage considerably. Thanks to all who have made this possible.

Addendum (June 13, 2012): The redistricting subcommittee had posted its final draft (map 7) on the Arlington Public Schools redistricting website.

Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.

April 10, 2007: I thought this was my last meeting as a member of the Arlington School Committee. I chose not to run for re-election, and at 11:10 p.m. I cast my last vote – to adjourn.

Fast forward to 2012. Joe Curro ran for a seat on the Board of Selectman, topped the ticket, and vacated his school committee seat. On May 3, the rest of the school committee chose a replacement to fill his seat until the next election. Me.

Why did I do it? I like and respect the members of the committee. I also wanted to honor the service of Kathy Fennelly, another experienced member who filled a vacancy during the 2006-07 school year. Having an experienced replacement was a tremendous asset for us five years ago, and I wanted to return the favor.

So, I’m back in. I will try to use this forum to share my thoughts on the topics we are facing on the Sixth Floor (Arlington slang for the administrative offices and the school committee room).